Writing for One
December 2014 (perspective of an assistant professor)
If you have trouble writing, imagine yourself writing to one specific person.
Many people have trouble writing. That doesn't surprise me. However, what does surprise me is how these same people often have no trouble writing emails to me. Their emails are clear, coherent, and to the point. Yet when they write for a broader audience, their writing falls short.
Here's my pet theory of what's going on: When someone is writing an email to me, they know exactly who the reader is (me!), what I know, and (more importantly) what I don't know. Also, they know what the purpose of their email is, or else they wouldn't be sending it in the first place.
However, when an inexperienced writer is writing a report, research paper, or article, they often don't have a good grasp of who their hypothetical readers are, what they know, and what they don't know. Also, they often don't understand the exact purpose of their writing. As a result, they simply write out what they're thinking, not what is best for their readers to see.
Since it's hard to write for hypothetical readers, here's a hack for instantly improving your writing: Imagine yourself writing for one specific person. Pick a real person and write for them. Always keep them in your mind as you write. Imagine them reading your words. Will they be excited? Will they be confused? Will they be bored? Will they be delighted? Start by writing for an audience of one, just like your emails.
P.S. Since writing an email to one specific person is far easier than writing in general, if someone sends badly-written emails, then that's a sure sign they're a bad writer. They can't even empathize with one person, so how can they communicate well with N unknown people?